Successful supply runs for the Axis – November 1941

I think it was Kriebel, 1a (operations staff officer) of 15. Panzerdivision, or maybe von Mellenthin, 1c (intelligence staff officer) of Panzerarmee Afrika who claimed that fromthe destruction of the Duisburg (aka Beta) convoy on the night 8/9 November until the arrival of Ankara at Benghazi on 19 December, no supplies reached the Axis forces in North Africa.  This is not true.  While it is correct that until the successful M.42 operation on 19 December no major convoy came through, and that very important vessels were sunk, some vessels made it through.

First of all, there were the naval units carrying emergency supplies, as well as reinforcements (e.g. Sonderverband 288 arrived in parts on Italian destroyers).  See this older post for the emergency supply programme. Also, there were a few runs of purely civilian supply ships carrying food, coal and cement, and a run by the water tanker Leneo with water supplies for Tripoli harbour.

But at the same time, some small merchant convoys also made it through.  Below is a list of these, including their cargo.  The information is from the official history of the Italian Navy, Vol. VIII La Difesa del Trafico con L’Africa Settentrionale and various websites.  One should note that the Med was a very dangerous place to be at the time if one was in an Italian merchant.  Of the nine ships that made the run successfully, four were lost within the next six weeks, one of them on the return run, and one in harbour in North Africa while unloading.

The list may not be complete. Naval History Net’s Day-by-Day list at this link states that German steamer Brook and Italian trawler Amba Aradam, escorted by Tp Partenope arrived at Benghazi from Brindisi on 18 November. My current information is that this is not correct, but that it was instead a coastal convoy from Tripoli.  I’ll check it.

Supplies and reinforcements delivered on merchants during this period total as follows:

Tanks M13/40 24
Troops (Italian & German) 2,846
Vehicles and prime-movers 322
General stores and rations (military) 5,885 tons
Ammunition (Italian) 896 tons
Air force fuel 675 tons
Ammunition and various materials for the Germans 330 tons
General war stores for the Germans 3,383 tons
Undefined Up to 2,300 tons on Bolsena 1 December

Arrival dates, detailed cargoes and escorts as follows:

Arrival Date 16 November
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct da Verrazano (1)
Ct da Pigafetta
Ship(s) Name(s) Città di Napoli (2)
Città di Genova
Cargo by ship Città di Napoli
General Supply and Rations 130 tons
Troops 697
Città di Genova
General Supply 60 tons
Rations 104 tons
Troops 562
Arrival Date 21 November
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct Zeno
Tp Partenope (3)
Ship(s) Name(s) Città di Palermo
General Supply 92 tons
Troops (Italian) 428
Troops (German) 260
Arrival Date 23 November
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Tp Orione
Ct Strale
Tinos (4)
Cargo by ship Bolsena
General Supply and Rations for the Italians 341 tons
Ammunition 395 tons
Vehicles and Prime Movers 5
Food and other Materials for the civilians 140 tons
Ammunition and various materials for the Germans 330 tons
War stores for the German forces 3,383 tons
War stores for the Italian forces 14 tons
Vehicles and Prime Movers 4
Arrival Date 23 November
Location Tripoli
Escort(s) Ct Usodimare
Ct Saetta then from Tripoli
Ct Sebenico
Tp Centauro
Ship(s) Name(s) Fabio Filzi (5)
General Supply and Rations 3,073 tons
Tanks M13/40 (Italian) 10
Vehicles and Prime Movers 123
Civilians 110
Troops 115
Fuel for the airforce in barrels 675 tons
Arrival Date 24 November (6)
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct Malocello
Ship(s) Name(s) Città di Tunisi
General Supply 103 tons
Troops (Italian) 476
Troops (German) 289
Arrival Date 1 December
Location Benghazi
Escort(s) Ct da Verrazano
Ship(s) Name(s) Sebastiano Venier (7)
General Supply 1968 tons
Troops (Italian) 19
Civilians 118
Ammunition 591 tons
Vehicles and Prime Movers 190
Tanks M13/40 14
Arrival Date 1 December
Location Tripoli
Escort(s) Tp Centauro
Ship(s) Name(s) Bolsena
Cargo No information but see above run for capacity.


(1) Ct = Cacciatorpediniere, a larger destroyer, I think these would be Fleet Destroyers (large, well-armed, fast) in Royal Navy classification.
(2) The four Città vessels were classed as naval auxiliaries D1 to D4 and carried an armament of 4x120mm guns and AA equipment. They were relatively fast (19 knots for Genova and Palermo, 17 knots for Tunisi and Napoli) passenger/cargo ships with about 5,400 tons displacement. Only Città di Tunisi survived the war and was broken up in 1970ish.  Città di Palermo did not even survive CRUSADER, she was torpedoed and sunk with very heavy loss of life by HM Submarine Proteus (Lt.Cmdr. Francis) off the Greek island of Cephalonia on 5 January 1942.
(3) Tp = Torpediniere, a smaller destroyer, I think these would be Destroyer Escorts (small, medium armament, medium speed, designed for convoy duty) in Royal Navy classification.
(4) Tinos was bombed while in the harbour of Benghazi. Most of her freight (AA ammunition and bombs) could be salvaged however.
(5) Mn Fabio Filzi was a new ship, commissioned in 1940. She was a fast and large merchant (16 knots, 6,836 tons displacement), and clearly seen as a high-value addition to the Italian merchant fleet, judging by her escort. It did not help her much, she was lost off Taranto to HMS Upright, together with what looks like her sister Carlo de Greco, while carrying 45 German tanks and about 600 or so troops. 453 shipwrecked were rescued by the accompanying destroyers.
(6) Mn Città di Tunisi ran in convoy from Suda Bay with Città di Genova to arrive on 21 November, but suffered an engine breakdown and had to return to Suda Bay with Malocello. After fixing the malfunction she set out again. She was damaged by bombs on the return run, according to radio interception by the British Admiralty.
(7) Tragically, on the run back Sebastiano Venier was torpedoed by HM Submarine Porpoise (Lt. Cdr. E.F.Pizey DSO) and had to be beached on Navarino. Of about 1,800 British and Commonwealth POW she transported, over 300 were killed. There is a lot of detail on this tragedy at this link.

Batallion Kolbeck – The wrong tool for the job on Ed Duda

On 1 December Batallion Kolbeck, a thrown together unit consisting of about 500 lightly armed recently released German POWs from Afrika-Rgt. 361, as well as cooks and other B echelon (supply troops) personnel of infantry, artillery and flak units of or attached to or from 90th Light division,  reinforced by some heavy weapons, was launched into a supporting attack from the north towards Belhamed. This was one prong of a pincer attack to retake the height of Ed Duda. The other pincer was supposed to be provided by the Italian Trento division, with the support of five tanks from 15. Panzerdivision. But the tanks never showed up, them being busy elsewhere, and Trento’s command wisely decided that without armour support they would be on a hiding to nothing. Unfortunately for Batallion Kolbeck, that meant they were left alone to face the formidable Commonwealth defenses. Overall, the plan of attack was  based on a flawed intelligence appreciation about Commonwealth forces in the break-out salient, a flawed understanding at higher command levels of what could still be asked of its troops, and flawed co-ordination of the attack. Looking at the records, the decision to pursue this attack with this force is difficult to comprehend, and it is one more example of the command failures of Panzergruppe during the battle.

Battle around this sector had been raging for days (see this older post for events on 29 November).  The proposed attack was following the rather successful attacks against the New Zealand Division, which the day before had suffered severely, and had to give up its hold on the corridor.  On the other hand, the Axis forces had been too weak to really re-establish a close siege line, and most importantly had failed to dislodge the Tobruk garrison forces from the Ed Duda salient. The command of 90th Light seems to have assumed, trusting information from the other formations, that there were few enemy forces and no tanks left in the salient and ordered this scratch unit (its only battalion left judged capable or available for attack) with some heavy weapons support to attack, while Panzergruppe expected 90th Light to cross the salient and re-establish the siege, retaking all the strongpoints lost during the breakout.  Needless to say, Batallion Kolbeck completely failed, with considerable losses, and Panzergruppe seems never to have been told that this was the only remaining unit within 90th Light capable of taking offensive action (or so they thought). The incident is well covered in the official histories of Australia and New Zealand, probably because it came at a critical point in the battle, maybe because it marks the passing of the high water mark of the Axis effort to crush the salient and maybe because the German attack fell apart with heavy losses, a performance that was unusual, to say the least.

The Australian official history states the Commonwealth perspective of this fight in Chapter 10 “Ed Duda”, pp493-4:

Then as a result of enemy movement on the north and west sides of Belhamed a warning was given that an attack on Ed Duda was expected. Burrows returned but the attack did not develop. Later in the afternoon enemy infantry and three tanks advanced from the east as though to cut the corridor in rear of the battalion and a heightening of artillery fire in the west indicated a possible  converging thrust from that quarter, but the force attacking from the east did not press on when shelled.


A German infantry advance against the 1 /Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, supported by a heavy volume of small arms fire, was checked, and the New Zealanders drove off a party that simultaneously approached their headquarters . One company position at Bir Belhamed was penetrated, however, and isolated English pockets anxiously held to their ground throughout a confused night. At first light some Germans were captured but the enemy reorganised and about 9 a .m. a sizable force of infantry assault engineers and anti-tank gunners made a crude attack. The Beds and Herts showing cool discipline held all fire until the enemy were close and then engaged them with crippling effect . The Germans turned and made for the ridge to the north only to run into sharp fire from the New Zealanders, who effectively disrupted a none too orderly withdrawal . Once again a German assault on the Tobruk sortie force had gained nothing but had cost the German command many killed, wounded and captured . Some had been taken prisoner twice within a fortnight . Many of them belonged to a newly formed infantry unit of the 90th Light Division, called after its commander the Kolbeck Battalion, which was composed largely of men released from the New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp overrun in the German counter-offensive on 28th November .

The New Zealand history also has an account of the battle in Chapter 25 of “The Relief of Tobruk”:

On the saddle between there and Belhamed 18 New Zealand Battalion repulsed a light and poorly-staged attack (by Kolbeck Battalion, an ad hoc unit of 90 Light) after dark on 1 December and helped to defeat a much heavier attack next morning. This came mainly against 1 Bedfords and Herts to the left rear, and this unit drove the enemy northwards in considerable disorder. In the course of this fighting it became apparent that the morale of General Suemmermann’s troops had deteriorated and their offensive potential was now negligible. Kolbeck Battalion suffered crippling loss in men and equipment, and 605 Anti-Tank Battalion, 900 Engineer Battalion, and III Battalion of 347 Infantry Regiment met with some loss, particularly in anti-tank weapons. To 18 Battalion, on the other hand, the action was salutary; it cost only seven casualties against many times that number of Germans killed, wounded or captured and helped to restore any confidence that had been shaken by the fighting on Belhamed.

Chapter 15 of the official history of the New Zealand 18 Battalion contains this text on page 222 and a map:

Life on that escarpment, though much more bearable than the previous week, was still no bed of roses. The enemy was close and was in a nasty aggressive mood at first, as 18 Battalion soon found out. A report by Peart to Divisional Headquarters on 3 December outlines briefly what happened during the first three days in the new position:

At about 1900 hrs [1 December] a night attack was made on the Bn. by enemy infantry from the north. This attack was easily repulsed with LMG and rifle fire.

At about 0630 hrs 2 Dec 41, a new attack was started from the north by at least a Bn of the enemy with arty support. This attack was also repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy by 0900 hrs. We suffered 7 casualties.

The remainder of 2 Dec 41 was one of comparative quiet except for movement of the enemy outside small arms range. Arty fire was brought to bear by 1 RHA who had sent an FOO to the Bn.

Late in the afternoon considerable activity by the enemy was observed on belhamed and an attack from that direction was expected. After considerable difficulty it was found possible to get two A/Tk guns (Polish) through Beds and Herts Regt, and five I tanks from 22 Armd Bde…. 1 RHA arranged a complete defensive fire plan.

No attack developed and night ⅔ Dec was quiet. 90 reinforcements were sent forward from B Ech of 18 Bn and 20 Bn. 10 18 Bn reported and took away all wounded, except stretcher cases, and some 50 officers and ORs of a German and Italian hospital in the Bn area.

On 3 Dec much enemy movement was visible east and south of the posn. Recce patrols were sent out and at time of writing it appears that the enemy is holding a defensive line sidi resegh-belhamed-bu amud…. An attack on the enemy has also developed further south from apparently some portion of our own troops.

Wire has been received from Beds and Herts Regt and 600 mines have been promised. It is proposed to further consolidate the posn on night ¾ Dec.

The morale of the tps is good…. The present strength of the unit, including attached from 20 Bn, is 17 Offrs and 528 ORs….

It is emphasised that for a considerable period this Bn has been placed in posns of extreme difficulty with three sides open to attack and with little support available. Great help has been received in particular from 1 RHA and their FOO….

Early information about plans for our future action or movement would be appreciated….

This bald account fairly effectively conceals some very sound work by 18 Battalion, beginning shortly after dark on 1 December, when the alarm was first raised that Jerry was coming in on the north-east flank. The Brens facing that way opened up forthwith, the riflemen round them joined in with enthusiasm, and very successful their efforts were, for Jerry halted and dug in where he was, down below the escarpment. After the morning’s events the battalion was not at all disposed to let sleeping dogs lie. The Brens continued to give Jerry what one man described as a ‘good pasting’, but Jerry stuck to his new position, and a little later in the evening sent in a few shells which rather cramped the battalion’s style.

All that night fingers in 18 Battalion were very ready to triggers, but Jerry did nothing till daybreak next day, when a sudden storm of shells arrived, followed by the enemy infantry, whose numbers, now that they could be estimated in daylight, looked like 200 or so. Reaction was swift. Brens and rifles opened up, followed by the Royal Horse Artillery, with an effect so rewarding that even the 18 Battalion boys were astonished. Under the shelling and accurate sniping the German troops broke and ran—a rare spectacle—and as they did so more and more troops rose out of the ground and joined them till the estimated 200 had swollen to a battalion at least. They did not stop till they reached a small ridge 800 yards away, where they rallied on a line of tanks in hull-down positions.

Jerry had now lost his first advantage of surprise, and all the advantage of ground lay with 18 Battalion, which could overlook the whole situation. To some men it looked as if the tanks were driving the infantry back into the fight, but that might have been a bit far-fetched. There was certainly much activity over in the lee of the little ridge, staff cars buzzing about and the Germans obviously making ready to come again. But the fun, when it began again about 7 a.m., was shortlived. The German infantry this time made almost no progress; the Royal Horse Artillery (for whom the 18th was beginning to cherish a warm regard) opened fire again and broke up the advance, helped by three opportune British tanks which appeared out of nowhere.

That was the ignominious end of Jerry’s attempt on 18 Battalion from the north. During the rest of the morning the infantrymen and artillery had intermittent sport shooting at small enemy parties which from time to time rose up from the ground and made a dash for safety, and in the afternoon the pioneer platoon sent out a patrol and helped the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment to round up some 150 Germans who had hoped to lie doggo till dark. They might have got away with it but for an accident—an enemy car travelling injudiciously up the bypass road had stopped when fired on, and a carrier which went to investigate had stumbled on these hapless Jerries in the vicinity. Exposure for hours to drizzle and cold wind (for 2 December was a foul day) had sapped their resistance, and they surrendered without argument. They were herded up and marched off to the ‘Beds & Herts’ lines, with 18 Battalion interestedly watching from its vantage point.

The history of these abortive attacks from ‘the other side of the hill’ is interesting. While the morning attack on Belhamed on 1 December was in full swing, Africa Corps asked 90 Light Division to attack from the north, the idea being to trap the Kiwis between two forces and crush them, nutcracker style. The 90th Light agreed with alacrity, but promise seems to have outrun performance; the best unit it could find for the job was a makeshift, poorly armed battalion, commanded by the divisional adjutant and composed of odds and ends, supply troops and the like.

The first attack that night penetrated well down towards the Belhamed escarpment, but could not be pressed home against the solid defence of 18 Battalion and the Tommies. The attackers dug in for the night, then next morning tried again, with the disastrous results already described. It was no mere repulse, it was a fiasco. The battalion, received in such unfriendly fashion by 18 Battalion and 1 RHA, lost heart and decided unanimously to go home, ‘streaming back in disorder’

as 90 Light Division itself admits. Its unfortunate commander, hauled over the coals later, could offer no convincing explanation—the men, he said, had ‘bolted leaving behind their A Tk guns and other weapons’. Not an inspiring page in the history of German military prowess—but what a tonic for the battle-bruised 18 Battalion, whose morale had inevitably suffered a little in the cataclysm of 1 December.

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

While these write-ups in the histories make things look like they were very tidy from the Commonwealth side, one has to remember they were written after the war, by authors who had access to the war diary and reports of 90th Light, and are thus subject to a certain amount of hindsight.  A rather different picture is given by the operations report for 2 December 41 by 4 RTR, a Matilda tank regiment operating on Ed Duda which was involved in breaking up the attack.

Operations on 2nd December 1941

Issued operation orders for the day.

All quiet for the moment after battle at BELHAMEDlast night (this maybe the night action Kolbeck refers to, but which is not mentioned anywhere else).

Battle developed vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. This maybe the preliminary to an attack on the North of DUDA. BIR BELHAMED held by the Beds and Herts. C.Os. orders were to give any help possible.

Decision to be taken whether to send tanks to assist and possibly weaken DUDA which may be attacked in turn any moment or keep them and let the Beds and Herts carry on unsupported.

On the other hand no information that enemy are in vicinity of it at the moment, whereas if they overrun the the BIR BELHAMED position, they will be behind us here and can put guns to shoot up our tail.

Tank position at the moment is bright:-

12 tanks, 3000 yds West of BIR BELHAMED (Maj. Pritchard)

13 tanks, on top of DUDA (Capts. Kendall and Gardner).

4 tanks, in reserve at HQ (Major Roberts).

Decision:- To send help to BIR BELHAMED and ordered Major Prichard (sic!) to move as under:-

His left, forward and North to watch WOLF (one of the old objectives of the break-out).

His right, to advance and engage enemy tanks that now appeared South East of BIR BELHAMED and advancing to attack Beds and Herts. There are eight of these Mk IIIs by the the look of them.

Major Roberts with 4 tanks to move directly forward East to demonstrate towards enemy.  This will have the effect of putting tanks on both flanks of them.

0750 – considerably firing in vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. It looked as though Beds and Herts were surrounded by enemy tanks and infantry, and that they had surrendered, and this was confirmed by an Officer of the Australians who said he could see them.

Message from Major Prichard to say enemy had withdrawn, and that BIR BELHAMED was in our hands and had been all the time.  He also says that considerable number of weaponless Germans who had surrendered are now walking over a minefield and escaping. Asked what to do. C.O. told him to fire on them. Later he reports that they returned when he opened fire. They were later taken in charge by the Beds and Herts.

Enemy did not engage with tanks at all. Major Roberts had some shooting, but as far as could be seen, his shells bounced off the enemy tanks.  Hear that the Mk IIIs have been reinforced.

Enemy withdrew North East.  Beds and Herts shot up Major Prichards tanks on sight. SOme Germans came near the Beds and Herts and called out that they were Poles, but this did not save them at all.

It was now established that the N-Zs at the corner BELHAMED were still in position too, and happy.

The rumours that (a) The Beds and Herts had surrendered.

(b) The N-Zs had been scuppered.

(c) That the enemy held the whole of BIR BELHAMED are thus fables. Most of our information appears to be fables.

1330 – All has been quiet for a while.

1400 – Information that enemy are advancing from the East along the escarpment.

Major Prichard lost two tanks on a minefield when he advanced on BIR BELHAMED. This cuts tanks down to 25 effective. Adj. tank is doing rear link and not available for fighting (unless things are desperate).

Finally, it is instructive to read the German original documents.  The failure was clearly seen as serious, and questions were asked up and down the command chain. The war diary entry of 90th Light’s operational war diary reads as follows:

1 December

1315hrs – the order to attack is also given to Battalion Kolbeck which consists of released prisoners from the Afrika regiment (former Foreign Legion men) and B Echelon personnel with minimal weapons equipment.

1520hrs – Battalion Kolbeck stands south of airfield with 4 Italian AT guns and waits for order to move out.

1610hrs – German planes bomb the british cauldron north of Belhamed (according to a New Zealand gunner, they actually bombed a a column of15th Panzer). Despite repeated request no answer from Corps (DAK) regarding permission for Battalion Kolbeck to attack and time to start.

1640hrs – Pz.Grp. orders closing the gap between Italian XXI. Corps south and 90th north by attacking. Forces are lacking for this. Because of fault on phone line and congestion on the radio net it is not possible to inform Grp. of the failure to carry out its order. The subordination to DAK, which gives new orders, the transmission from Gruppe is no superseded.

1700hrs – Start of attack of Battalion Kolbeck. Fluid, uninterrupted advance in direction Belhamed

1815hrs – Magen Belhamed reached. No enemy contact yet.

2000hrs – 1km south Magen Belhamed defensive fire from MG and AT guns. Shortly after heavy enemy artillery fire into the attack of Btl. Kolbeck. The Btl. goes to ground and can not advance one step more. Captain Kolbeck has doubts whether Belhamed is even in German hands already, since he received heavy fire from Belhamed. In several discussions with 15th and 21st Panzer Division, to which there is once more phone contact, it is confirled that Belhamed is in German hands. Thereupon radio call to Btl. Kolbeck. Meanwhile – 1945hrs – question from Panzergruppe why its order to close the gap southwards to Pavia across the old strongpoints (lost to Tobruk garrison breakout earlier in the battle –  see this older post) had not been carried out. Pz.Grp. declares agreement with measure after divisional commander explains (division under DAK since 1845hrs) and who points out phoned order from DAK to take Belhamed from the north.

2220hrs – two heavy tanks (Pz IV) arrive at the CP.

2 December 1941

Night quiet.

0620hrs – report that Btl. Kolbeck has reached the Ital. positions 1km north of the Axis road serpentines (Belhamed).

0700hrs – Captain Kolbeck intends to attack with left wing on 700m frontage along the serpentine towards the east to neutralise allegedly present English remaining elements. Attack gets stuck.

0705 – heavy enemy artillery fire on Btl. Kolbeck. Enemy attacks from Sghifet ed Duda with infantry (no tanks). Fire of several batteries from Tobruk on Btl. Kolbeck.

0730 – the two tanks which arrived during the night roll up to the support of Btl. Kolbeck and take with them the remains of Pz.Jg.605 (a formation of self-propelled lightly armoured 4.7cm AT guns) and help the hard fighting Btl. Kolbeck. The English attack breaks down.

0820hrs – the divisional commander drives to the frontline to personnaly orient himself about the situation of Btl. Kolbeck. Returns after 2 hours and again – 1000hrs – the Zafran appears to be free of enemy, while the Belhamed is lightly held. It appears unclear to all why Btl. Kolbeck has not advanced further.

1015hrs – Captain Möller receives the task to establish contact with DAK because Btl. Kolbeck can not advance since 0700hrs. The combat power of the newly established incongruent battalion is very much weakend by the enemy artillery fire and the attack.

1040hrs – a tank attack by 9 tanks is repulsed by our Pz.Jg. company by simply appearing.  Nevertheless the elements of Btl. Kolbeck are flooding back to the Via Balbia in complete confusion. They are there at the Axis cross caught by an orderly officer of the division and brought back to the supply officer to recover. The Pz.Jg. stand ready to defend at km 7 of the Axis road. Pioneer battalion 900 holds Point 130. Btl. Kolbeck moves back to Point 126 north of the Axis road and should hold a line strongpoints 903 to 900.


1235hrs – Captain Kolbeck reports to the divisional commander on the situation of his battalion. He states that the men made off, leaving behind their AT guns and weapons. Wounded and dead were caused primarily by artillery and MG fire.

3 December 1941

Night completely quiet. Some men of Btl. Kolbeck manage to return under cover of darkness. A complete weapon loss report of the division except S.R.155 and Afr. Rgt. 361 is handed to DAK.

The two further reports by Captain Kolbeck below are the German first-hand and unfiltered side of this fight, and were a response by the him as battalion commander to the criticism of the performance of his unit on those two days. They are appended to the war diary of 90th Light.

The first is a neat illustration of the chaos of battle.  Wargamers in particular sometimes seem to have trouble comprehending that a WW2 battlefield was a chaotic place, in which orders and units got lost or were simply not carried out because they conflicted with the instinct of self-preservation.   The report includes all the chaos one can presumably expect on a battlefield.  Vehicles break down, units retreat or advance in the wrong direction against orders, units leave the battlefield during fighting, units get lost.

1st Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 3 December 41

Re: Phone call from Divisional Commander 3 December 15.00 hours

Topic: Whereabouts of heavy weapons of Battlegroup Briehl during attack on 1 and 2 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

As ordered I report:

To support the attack on Belhamed the following had arrived as ordered:

1 platoon 3.7cm AT guns commanded by a Lt. Gewehr

2 5cm AT guns with a total of 5 men commanded by a Senior Private (Obergefreiter); munition porters were supplied by the battalion,

1 light Infantry Gun (short-range 7,5cm howitzers) platoon with 2 guns commanded by a Corporal.

The platoon of 3,7cm AT guns had the task to protect in leapfrogging advance in the right wing and the right flank of the battalion against tanks during the attack.  During the night fighting it was also used against machine gun targets.  During the night one vehicle broke down with engine damage.  During the continuation of the attack on 2 December the platoon took over tank protection of the right forward company, guns moving down-hill towed by their crews.  When the largest part of the company moved east against my orders and retreated north, the tank hunters followed on the order of thier platoon commander after removing the bolts, breeches and optics, carrying the latter with them. The guns were left behind.  The 2 i/c of the platoon reported to me on 3 December after he had been with Battlegroup Briehl until then. He and his 13 men with their light weapons were integrated into the 2nd company. Lieutenant Gewehr is allegedly wounded.

Of the 5cm AT guns one gun fell out during the first kilometres already, allegedly because of engine damage on the towing vehicle.  The second gun had the task during the early morning of 2 December to protect the attack leftwards against enemy tanks from the assembly area.  It was supposed to follow the left forward company as soon as this reached the valley bottom.  During the the evasion, against orders, of the leftward company and the elements of the battalion pushed left, the gun suddenly limbered up and moved back. No catching up with it was possible.  A report to the straggler collection point, which could not have known to the platoon, was not made.

The light infantry gun platoon had the order to follow the attack on 1 December 41 at the head of a company echeloned back leftwards, and be available to me.  When I wanted to call up the platoon for direct fire on an English strongpoint during night combat, it was not available.  It also did not reach the later assembly area.  Several hours of searching during the night remained fruitless.  One has to suppose that the platoon lost contact, moved in the wrong direction, was taken prisoner or returned without orders to its unit.

Signed: Kolbeck

2nd Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 4 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

Evening Report 3 December 1941

The reorganisation of the remains of the battalion to a two-company structure has been carried out. A further  32 NCOs and soldiers have reported as stragglers.


Staff 2 Officers 2 Civil servants 1 NCO, 7 soldiers

1st Company 1 Officer 28 NCO, 113 soldiers

2nd Company 1 Officer 15 NCO 103 soldiers

Total 4 Officers 2 Civil Servants 44 NCO 223 soldiers

One officer and 62 NCO and soldiers of 2./Afr.Rgt.361 are still on the march from the rest area of A.A.33 according to a sergeant. If they arrive it is intended to form a 3rd Company.

No new arrivals for weapons.  It was ascertained that a large part of the lost light MGs and 3 AT rifles was taken back on their own accord to their various units by the members of B Echelon who originally sent them.  A report to the straggler collection point was not made.  An order to recover the weapons has been issued by the supply officer of the battalion.

Equipment and weapons of the soldier was improved. Seven large tents were organised.  The mood amongst the troops is very good under the current circumstances.

Battalion personnel officer: DAK was sent loss and shortage report by radio on time.

Officers: KIA 3, WIA 7, MIA 9

NCOs: KIA 11, WIA 27, MIA 30

Soldiers: KIA 34, WIA 156, MIA 256

Shortage 22 officers, 74 NCO, 649 soldiers.

A more detailed follow-on report will come in writing and as soon as line fault is rectified by phone.

The numbers are partially estimated.  III./I.R.255 and Signals Command are not considered in loss and shortage, and Afr.Rgt 361 only for those recovered from prisonership and used here.

Signed: Kolbeck

Despite the performance (or rather lack of it) during the battle for Ed Duda, Batallion Kolbeck was kept as a unit until at least the retreat to Agheila. Of further interest maybe that Captain Kolbeck was an old acquaintance of Rommel. He is mentioned a few times in ‘The Rommel Papers’.  Apparently he was assigned to Hitler’s HQ and was sent out to accompany Rommel on his march west through France in the final stages of the campaign there, with no specific role.  He seems to have survived the campaign in Africa and was taken prisoner when Panzerarmee Afrika surrendered in Tunisia in 1943. He is one of the old acquaintances mentioned by Rommel in a letter to his wife, wondering how they were doing in captivity.   I am guessing that Rommel met him when he was serving as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard.

Getting it very badly wrong

CRUSADER was not exactly an operation that shone a bright light on the genius of the opposing commanders on both sides. Rather the contrary, with the exception of Auchinleck’s bold reaction to the result of the Totensonntag battle (Admission: I do have a lot of time for ‘The Auk’, and consider him one of the great commanders of World War II – he certainly stood head and shoulders and then some over anyone else in the desert, on both sides).

At NARA I have now come across what appears to me to be the most astonishing misreading of the battle, at least as far as I can tell from what I have seen. It shows in my opinion how completely out of touch with events Rommel was during the first two weeks of CRUSADER, until the visit by Montezumolo from Comando Supremo gave him the reality check that he needed to rescue his command, and made him decide to retreat.  The order is from the files of 90th Light and was distributed to all soldiers in the division. Here goes:

The Commander of Panzergruppe Afrika

Command Post, 2 December 1941

21.00 hours

Order of the Day

The battle in the Marmarica has come to its first victorious conclusion. In uninterrupted heavy fighting against a strongly superior enemy, by 1 December we had destroyed:

814 tanks and armoured cars,

127 planes and captured great volumes of war material. Over 9,000 prisoners have been made until now.

Soldiers! This great success is thanks to your toughness and endurance. The fight is not over yet. Therefore continue to advance to finally throw down the opponent!

The Commander

signed Rommel

The war diary of 90th Light has the following entry regarding this communication:

1110hrs – Radio from the Commander in Chief: the battle in North Africa has found its first preliminary conclusion.  This order, which causes great jubilation, is immediately passed on to all units.

One day later the Luftwaffe in Greece was ordered to co-operate closely with the Italian air force to prevent an orderly retreat of the Commonwealth forces by constant attacks.

Two days later the order to retreat was given and Panzergruppe Afrika took the long road back to el Agheila. The reaction to this order is not stated in the 90th Light diary. Fliegerführer Afrika reported that no signs of a British retreat were seen.

Reports by HMS Aurora on actions of Force K, 1941

Sinking of M/N Adriatico

In the night 30 Nov to 1 Dec 41 at about 3.30 am Force K sank the Italian naval auxiliary Adriatico.  Until I requested the reports from the 6″ cruiser HMS Aurora at Kew today I thought she was just a merchant vessel, and wondered why she tried the run from Argostoli (Greece) to Tripoli unescorted.  Turns out that she was under command of a Capitano di Corvette (Lieutenant Commander) of the Regia Marina, and armed with two 102 or 120mm guns (identified as 3″ guns by Captain Agnew during the engagement), two 20mm AA guns and 4 12mm heavy machine guns.   Her crew seems to have been fairly heavy at 90, 40 of which were naval ratings and officers. Below is a condensed excerpt from the report Captain Agnew of HMS Aurora failed after his return to Malta.

Adriatico was picked up at 12 nautical miles distance by a very sharp-eyed sailor, as Captain Agnew remarks.  Agnew decided to close to 6,000 yards before engaging her.  At 0304 hours he ordered a broadside fired and signalled to Adriatico to abandon ship.  Adriatico steamed on, ignoring the signal.

HMS Aurora fired a second broadside, claiming one hit. Adriatico stopped, and the signal to abandon ship was repeated, but no reaction observed.  Instead, at 0315 hours  Adriatico opened fire on HMS Aurora. (This was a very brave, or maybe foolish thing to do, depending on how you look at it).

Aurora immediately engaged with 6″ guns, and Adriatico was on fire all over very quickly.

Adriatico’s crew now abandoned ship, and a number of explosions were observed.  One of the destroyers was ordered to sink her before leaving the scene.

The ‘sharp-eyed sailor’ was almost certainly radar.

A number of Adriatico’s crew were rescued and subsequently interrogated. According to the surviving crew, this was the first trip of Adriatico to North Africa. Until then, she had worked around Italy and in the Adriatic, mostly as escort vessel.  I am beginning to suspect that her trip was part of the emergency supply programme (see also this older post).  The interrogation reports in HMS Aurora’s files are interesting reading. It appears that the commander of Adriatico considered her a naval vessel, and therefore felt he had to engage the far superior force pursuing him. It is also possible he believed that an engagement would attract attention by a superior Italian force including battleships which he had been advised were in the vicinity. Force K had been alerted to Adriatico’s voyage and course by ULTRA intercepts.

Adriatico was completed in 1931 as a mixed passenger/freighter of 1,976 tons at Riuniti Adriatico, and before being taken over by the Regia Marina was owned by Puglia S.A. di Navi, Bari .  (see Miramar ship index)

Sinking of Motocisterna Iridio Mantovani and RM Alvise da Mosto

There is already quite a bit of information on this particular disaster in this post linked above.  From the HMS Aurora report it appears that an ASV Wellington (a Wellington bomber equipped with air-to-sea surface radar) led Force K to the general vicinity of the two-ship convoy, but then transmitted erroneous bearings.  In this case however, the standing air patrol arranged over the stricken tanker was its undoing.  Lookouts on HMS Aurora spotted planes circling, and Captain Agnew correctly deduced that they would not circle over nothing, so pointed his force towards them.  After a short time masts were spotted, and the fate of Mantovani was sealed.  The air escort went to have a look at Force K,but when engaged left the scene quickly, presumably giving rise to the complaint by da Mosto’s commanding officer outlined in the older post.

In the report, da Mosto is correctly identified as a Navigatori class destroyer.  Captain Agnew is dismissive of her efforts to protect her charge, calling her fire ineffectual.  After a short engagement she was on fire and finally blew up.  The tanker was then engaged quite quickly and left on fire with explosions going off on her in intervals (presumed to be when the fire reached a new tank). When Force K was about 30 nautical miles away, a large explosion was observed, which must have been her end.

Sinking of Maritza and Procida

The Italian escort commander’s report on this particular disaster is also in this post linked above.  From the report of Captain Agnew, additional detail is available.  Force K received the instruction of where the convoy would be verbally from Flag Officer Malta (who had received it from ULTRA).  The convoy was considered crucial to the British success in CRUSADER, not just by the British, but also by the Luftwaffe.  The fuel it carried could have enabled the Luftwaffe to wrest control of the air from the RAF.

In Captain Agnew’s report he points out that Force K was shadowed for most of the approach by Axis planes, but that HMS Lively used an ‘amusing’ way of jamming.  In Lively’s report, this is explained – apparently the radio room on Lively identified the call signs for one ground station and one or two planes, and simply ordered radio silence, using the correct radio protocol.  This was promptly observed for 30 minutes.  When radio transmissions started again they were partially jammed, and the trick then repeated.  Force K also observed aerial supply traffic from Crete to North Africa and in two cases engaged a He 111 bomber and a Ju 52 transport with no effect.

When closing in on the convoy, Ju 88 bombers engaged Force K, but were deterred by the heavy volume of AA fire and their bombs fell away from the ships causing no damage. This must have happened outside the range of notice of Commander Mimbelli of Lupo, who was waiting for the intervention of the Luftwaffe to rescue his convoy.

Captain Agnew is also dismissive of the effort by the Italian escort, describing their action as ‘making off to the north and abandoning the freighters to their fate’.  The fire by the Italian vessels was also ineffectual, causing nothing more then splinter damage above the waterline of HMS Penelope. This is quite a contrast to the claims of 2-3 observed hits on a cruiser, and makes one wonder where the 304 rounds of 10cm fired by Lupo and Cassiopeia actually went.

After the engagement the destroyers were left with only 36 hours of fuel, which led Captain Agnew to order a return to Malta instead of a pursuit or further operations.

“I have a son in Russia”

Those were apparently the last words of Major-General Max Sümmermann, Commander of 90. leichte Afrika-Division, before he died of wounds received in an air attack on 10 December 1941, during the retreat to the Gazala position.  A report of the circumstances of his death is contained in the war diary of the division. He was one of the General rank officer casualties suffered by the Germans during the battle. My research has not yet extended to the Italian general officers, but if someone has the information, feel free to post it as a comment.

As far as I can make out, eight German officers of general rank (ranks as of the time of battle) were based in North Africa when CRUSADER commenced on 17 November 1941.

General der Panzertruppe Erwin Rommel – Commander, Panzergruppe Afrika

Generalmajor Alfred Gause – Chief of Staff, Panzergruppe Afrika

Generalmajor Karl Böttcher – Commander, Artilleriekommando 104.

Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell – Commander, Deutsches Afrikakorps

Generalmajor Walter Neumann-Silkow – Commander, 15.Panzerdivision.

Generalmajor Johann von Ravenstein – Commander, 21.Panzerdivision.

Generalmajor Max Sümmermann – Commander, 90. leichte Afrika-Division.

Generalmajor Arthur Schmitt –  originally commander rückwärtiges Armeegebiet (army rear area) (Korück) 556, but put in charge of installations and defense of Bardia in preparation for the attack on Tobruk.

Of these eight, four became casualties, and one had to report himself sick shortly after the end of operations.

von Ravenstein was captured by a New Zealand patrol while on reconnaissance during the battles of Sidi Rezegh on 28 November 41. He was the first German general officer to be captured by Commonwealth forces. An article giving details of his capture can be found at this link.

Neumann-Silkow died of wounds received from Commonwealth artillery fire on 6 December 1941, during the fighting around Bir el Gobi.

Sümmermann died of wounds under the circumstances outlined above.

Schmitt surrendered his command the fortress of Bardia with a garrison of almost 8,000 Italian and German soldiers, on 2 January 1942 to Major-General de Villiers, General Officer Commanding 2nd South African Division. He was the first German general officer to surrender such a large body of men and a city to Commonwealth forces.

Gause reported sick on 18 February 42 and left Africa for a while.  I believe it is arguable that the strain of the battle over the last three month played a role in this.

At least three of the German generals received the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) for their role in the battle: Gause, Böttcher and Schmitt.

Some pictures:

From the NZETC site

From the NZETC site

Böttcher and Rommel in January 42 - from the German archives

Böttcher and Rommel in January 42 - from the German archives

From the NZETC site

From the NZETC site

From the NZETC site

From the NZETC site

Italian division strengths at the end of the battle

Another document from yesterday’s haul shows the strength of all Italian divisions on 1 Feb 1942, and compares them to their authorised strength.  It makes sombre reading and shows the impact of the fighting on the Italian formations, most of which I would presume (but be happy to be corrected about) to have been at pretty close to full strength under the Tipo AS40 organisation when the CRUSADER battles started. In this document however, the relevant strength level applied to them is the Tipo AS 42 organisation.

It looks as if the conversion to AS42 was ordered around the start of January 42, and it may well have been an organisation type that achieved two advantages for the Italians. First, it significantly reduced the supply needs for the infantry divisions which in the view of commanders on both sides always had a marginal role in Africa (notwithstanding the fact that the Commonwealth infantry divisions together with the British I-tanks won CRUSADER).  At the same time, it already reflected the very heavy losses suffered by the Italian divisions during CRUSADER.  If the strengths at the end of the battle are compared to the AS40 organisation, they do look a lot worse. AS42 was a divisional organisation that was really more reflective of Italian capabilities in terms of maintaining frontline strength in Africa while building it up significantly in Russia at the same time (where the Expedition Corps was built up to an Army in 1942).  Quite simply, Italy took on more than she could handle with the Russian adventure. Between Russia, the occupation of Greece and Albania, and the need to protect the homeland, little if nothing was left for the last remaining colony of the would-be successor to the Roman empire.

What AS42 meant in terms of combat capability of the Italian infantry divisions is bleak – they were divisions in name only. In terms of strength, they were closer to a British infantry brigade than anything else. So when we are talking about Italian divisions, this needs to be kept in mind. Essentially, the two Italian infantry corps would have a combat value comparable to, although probably slightly above (depending on what artillery the Corps was furnished with) that of a British infantry division.

X. Corpo Armato (10th Army Corps) – all divisions should have 6,865 men under the Tipo A.S.42 organisation

Bologna – 3,897 (56% of authorised strength under the AS42 TO&E/36% compared to the AS40 TO&E)

Brescia – 4,108 (59%/37%)

Corps Troops – 1,522

XXI. Corpo Armato (21st Army Corps)Pavia and Sabratha divisions should have 6,865 men under the Tipo A.S.42 organisation, Trento should have 10,831 as Div. Ftg. Autotrasportabile or 8,731 as Div. Mot. tipo A.S. (maybe someone can confirm which type this division was? The document seems to indicate only Piave was organised as the latter type)

Pavia – 4,651 (67%/42%)

Sabratha – 5,084 (73%/46% – Sabratha was not involved in active combat in CRUSADER, providing only a blocking force at Mersa el Brega; it was however involved in COMPASS and was rebuilding in Tripolitania during the year)

Trento – 4,518 (52% assuming it was a Div. Mot. tipo A.S.)

Corps Troops – 3,551

Corpo Armato di Manovra CAM – Mobile Army Corps

Ariete – 5,707 (62% – as armoured division should have 9,274)

Trieste – -6,795 (78% – Trieste should have 10,831 as Div. Ftg. Autotrasportabile or 8,731 as Div. Mot. tipo A.S. – but the question is the same as with Trento)

Corps Troops -555

Other units:

Various Elements

Western Libya – 4,540

Eastern Libya – 517

Completely lost:

Divisione Savona – 0 (division lost at Bardia/Sollum)

This link contains good information about Italian divisions,  but in German.

Leo Niehorster’s site has pages on the organisation of the A.S.40 Infantry Division and the A.S.42 Infantry Division.

I would be interested to find out when the reorganisation into A.S.42 was ordered for the infantry and motorised divisions, before or during the winter battles of 41/42?

Cronistoria Files of Superaereo

When going to the archives yesterday with my friend James (and getting me the nerdiest-looking picture on a user card ever), I found some very nice Italian information covering the CRUSADER period.  I am actually not quite sure if this has ever been published in English, or indeed in Italian. Maybe somebody can comment on that?

Cronistoria is shorthand for Cronica della Storia (historical chronicle), and it is a simple mission report compiled for Superaereo of the Regia Aeronautica (High Command of the Royal Air Force) in the A.S.I. (Africa Settentrionale Italiana – Italian North Africa) area of operations, on a daily basis.  Below are two days.

15 November 1941

tel. 2485 to Superaereo

5 MC.200 carried out an escort of a S.75 reconnaissance plane.  Formation was attacked by 4 Hurricans from above.  Combat allowed the reconnaissance plane to escape.  One MC dived in smoke and crashed on the ground. One Hurricane shot down in flames.

13 CR.42 carried out escort for a S.81.

5 G.50 carried out patrol over Benghazi, and one G.50 took off on alarm.

2 MC.200 took off from Barce on alarm.

tel. 2518 to Superaereo

One Ro.37 explored along the coastline from Ain Gazala Apollonia-Marsa Susa and five miles out from Apollonia-Marsa Susa Ai Gazala.

One Cant.Z.501 carried out a search for motor sailing vessels and mines (or mine hunters)

18 November 1941

tel. 2581 to Superaereo

5 G.50 prepared to take off for an alarm, two did not succeed, the other three followed, reached and attacked an enemy formation; one (enemy) plane shot down.

tel. 2633 to Superaereo

One G.50 took off on alarm.

6 CR.42 carried out an escort of Ju.87 planes.

10 G.50 took off on alarm from Martuba.  One G.50 took off on alarm from Ain-Gazala and made contact together with German fighters with a formation of 9 Glen Martin (bombers). One shot down.